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The Whale

Brendan Fraser and Hong Chau thoroughly deserve their Oscar nominations for this complicated drama — and 'Stranger Things' star Sadie Sink is also phenomenal.
By Sarah Ward
February 01, 2023
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By Sarah Ward
February 01, 2023
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The actors have it: in The Whale, Brendan Fraser (No Sudden Move), Hong Chau (The Menu) and Sadie Sink (Stranger Things) are each masterful, and each in their own way. For viewers unaware that this drama about a reclusive 600-pound English professor stems from the stage going in, it won't take long to realise — for multiple reasons, the film's performances chief among them. As penned by Samuel D Hunter (also a writer on TV's Baskets) from his award-winning semi-autobiographical play, The Whale's script is talky and blunt. The movie is confined to its protagonist Charlie's home, and is as claustrophobic as it's meant to be as a result. But it's that key acting trio, with the portrayals they splash through a flick that's a complicated sea of feelings and ideas, that helps The Whale swim when it swims. Yes, the Brenaissance is upon us, showering Fraser in accolades including his first-ever Oscar nod; however, fellow Academy Award-nominee Chau and rising star Sink are equally as powerful.

Is it really the Brenaissance if Fraser hasn't ever been too far from our screens for too long? When he was recently stellar in 2021's No Sudden Move, albeit in a supporting part? Given that it's been decades since he's had the space and the feature to serve up this kind of lead effort, the answer remains yes. Slip his The Whale performance in beside standout 2002 thriller The Quiet American — although the latter didn't place The Mummy action star and Encino Man comedic force beneath considerable prosthetics. Fraser doesn't let his appearance here do all the work, though. Filmmaker Darren Aronofsky, who hones in on the stressed and tested as he has so frequently before (see: Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan, The Wrestler and mother!), doesn't allow it to, either. At the core of the pair's collaboration is a portrayal that overflows with vulnerability and grief alongside optimism for humanity, and acutely fuses Charlie's emotional and physical states. The character self-mockingly jokes that his internal organs are buried deep, but nothing conceals Fraser's sensitivity. 

It's with a lone black square that The Whale initially explains Charlie's relationship with the world: on online calls with his students, he's represented by a void of a tile. He claims that his webcam is broken, but he's actively hiding — from his pupils' reactions and from facing his sorrow. Other than these digital lectures, visits from his friend and nurse Liz (Chau) to check on his wellbeing and deliver food, and daily pizza drops from a driver instructed to leave the slices outside, Charlie has withdrawn from everything beyond his first-floor apartment when the film begins. That said, The Whale isn't a portrait of a man who is sad and has shut himself off because he is overweight. Rather, it's an exploration of someone who has an eating disorder because he is heartbroken by a tragedy, relying upon food compulsively to cope, and to process his doubts and regrets over his decisions and their ramifications. 

Friedrich Nietzsche's aphorism "what does not kill me makes me stronger" is flipped here: after the death of his partner Alan, who he left his ex-wife Mary (Samantha Morton, She Said) and now-teenage daughter Ellie (Sink) to be with, Charlie is using the sustenance we all need for strength and survival as his escape route. His sense of self has been slain by his loss, and so has his willingness to go on. It isn't just to ramp up tension or establish that obesity can spark high blood pressure and heart attacks that The Whale has its central figure doubling over with chest pains while he's masturbating early in the feature. With the film's narrative unfurling day by day, the incident sets a ticking clock, but most importantly it sees Charlie refuse to go to hospital. When she arrives, Liz insists, but he still won't agree. In this specific character study, he's that steadfast — and, even as he tries to reconnect with the bitter Ellie and spouts hope for humankind's ability to care, he's that intensely unhappy without Alan.

Indeed, if it wasn't for missionary Thomas (Ty Simpkins, Avengers: Endgame), who conveniently comes a-knocking for the New Life church spouting a message about the end of times, Charlie wouldn't make it to The Whale's second act. Instead of asking the soul-searching young man to phone an ambulance, he makes a request that seems inexplicable while he's struggling for breath: to read aloud from an essay about Moby-Dick. The film gains its title from and shares its sense of search with Herman Melville's famous novel, as Charlie battles the behemoth that is his own complicated, constantly contrasting and conflicted feelings. The link isn't subtle. Again, The Whale isn't usually subtle. For another case in point, hear: Rob Simonsen's (Ghostbusters: Afterlife) emotion-shouting score. But Fraser always conveys Charlie's pain like it's pumping through the actor's own veins, and proves devastatingly and movingly effective at balancing bright-eyed charm with piercing melancholy.

While The Whale both demands and deploys Fraser's best — in tender moments, in dialogue-heavy exchanges and in his physical performance alike — it leaves ample room for Chau and Sink to make an imprint. Aronofsky may task his regular cinematographer Matthew Libatique (also a Don't Worry Darling alum) with boxing in Fraser via the constricting Academy ratio, often offering very little visible space around him, but Chau's distressed pal and Sink's cruel daughter remain pivotal to this story. What does it mean to want contentment and safety for a loved one who seeks the opposite for himself? To bear the hurt of someone else's choices? To have either your daily existence or your identity, or both, forged by another's decisions? In Chau's direct, kindhearted but quietly anguished turn, and in Sink's openly, flippantly brutal reactions as Ellie, The Whale compassionately plunges into these questions.

It should come as little surprise that Aronofsky's eighth film is at its finest when it lets Fraser, Chau and Sink verbally bounce off of each other — when it's unpacking the feelings boiling in Charlie's grimly lit, amber-hued flat, and examining how every life's ups and downs ebb and flow into others. Finding insights in clashing people, attitudes and concepts is The Whale's approach in general, including in its use of darkness and light; handling of religion and salvation; survey of Charlie's internal and external suffering; and attempts to wade into stress- and binge-eating, consumption as a coping mechanism, and body-shaming responses to any departure from societal standards of beauty. Charlie himself chases meaning in the same type of chaos and contradictions, pinning his hopes as his days wane on a last-minute reunion with Ellie. In that fiery confrontation, as in every single one at the heart of The Whale, nothing is easy. 

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